The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Seasonal influenza hits its peak in Malta, 15 per cent of GP visits due to flu

Rachel Attard Sunday, 20 January 2019, 08:00 Last update: about 2 years ago

Seasonal influenza has, as predicted, reached its peak in Malta and in line with other European countries, 15 out of every 100 people consulting their family doctor for whatever reason are found to be suffering from the illness.

Influenza places a high burden on society, health systems and the economy as a whole, with between five and 15 per cent of populations affected on average. Year after year, seasonal influenza hits the globe and presents challenges for every country's health system.

Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, a Health Ministry spokesperson explained how monitoring of the situation in Malta is carried out at community level and at secondary level.

Community monitoring is carried out through sentinel surveillance, with a number of family doctors supporting public health authorities with data on cases of influenza seen in their practice.

The spokesperson explains: "Currently we have high levels of influenza activity, with a peak of 15 cases for every 100 people going to their family doctor for whatever condition. Monitoring at secondary level is through the number of hospital admissions, where a peak is currently being experienced."

Monitoring determines the types of flu that are currently prevalent. From data collected from community and hospital cases, the types identified were mainly H1 and H3. This is similar to the situation in Europe as reported by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, where European countries are reporting an increase in influenza activity with both influenza A(H1N1) and A(H3N2)pdm09 viruses being detected. The Influenza A (H1N1) virus emerged in 2009.

According to the spokesperson: "At that time it was more of a threat as it was a new virus and people had not been previously exposed to such a strain. Since then it has become the predominant circulating strain in many European countries for seasonal influenza.

"It is responsible for 40 per cent of confirmed influenza strains in Europe. In Malta, the majority of cases confirmed through laboratory diagnosis were of type A influenza - with 57.7 per cent being A H1 and 42.3 per cent  A H3. Both of these strains were included in the current vaccine composition."

The best prevention is always though vaccination and 100,000 doses of the trivalent vaccine were ordered for Malta.  Two weeks of free vaccinations for high-risk groups began on 15 October at health centres and local councils, after which free vaccinations were available for the entire population. To date, 85,687 people have been vaccinated.

The trivalent vaccine which was offered by government was in accordance with the WHO recommended composition of influenza virus vaccines for Northern Hemisphere 2018-2019 influenza season and consisted of following:

  • A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1) pdm09-like virus
  • A/Singapore/INFIMH-16-0019/2016 (H3N2)-like virus
  • B/Colorado/06/2017-like virus [B/Victoria/2/87 lineage]

As such, the current main circulating strains were included in the vaccine components but the immunity offered by the vaccine varies and is very dependent on various factors amongst which is age and general health of the person.

While vaccine effectiveness can vary, studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.

There is also an ongoing campaign on measures for the prevention of spread of flu 'Beat the Flu' covering the facts for prevention including 'Get Vaccinated', 'Wash your Hands', 'Stay at home if you are sick' and 'Cover your mouth'.

The general public is encouraged to take flu prevention measures to prevent spread and for those persons who have not yet taken the vaccine to attend health centres for vaccination. For people who have flu symptoms seek the advice of the family doctor who can advise on medical measures and can refer to hospital only if and when required.

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